The three candidates for superintendent of Akron Public Schools all said Wednesday they would prioritize student safety and community building if picked to lead the school district.
About 50 people were in attendance at Akron Public Schools’ downtown headquarters for a forum featuring the three finalists.
Following brief introductions, the three took turns answering a series of questions posed by Mike Collins, president of the superintendent search firm Ray and Associates.
There had been four finalists, but Nia Campbell, the chief academic officer for Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, withdrew her name from consideration.
APS superintendent search:Akron Public Schools board names 4 superintendent finalists, including current interim
The remaining three include Mary Outley, Akron’s interim superintendent, who is the only internal candidate. She was formerly the executive director of elementary education and has been with the district for 32 years.
She was joined by Jermaine Dawson, chief academic and accountability officer for Birmingham City Schools in Alabama and C. Michael Robinson, who currently serves a the chief academic officer for East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana.
Outley has been serving as interim superintendent since former superintendent Christine Fowler Mack left the district in February.
Wednesday’s forum was invite-only, but included parents, business partners and union leaders. Members of the audience were invited to submit their feedback regarding each of the candidates in an online survey by 9 a.m. Thursday.
Each finalist will tour three school buildings today ahead of final interviews with the board starting at 4 p.m.
Following the interviews, the board will deliberate in executive session and expects to name a final candidate for the job tonight.
What is the Akron superintendent’s role? Three finalists share their vision
The candidates were asked eight questions over the course of nearly two hours, ranging from how they view the role of a superintendent, to safety and security and how they would work to keep students from leaving for other school districts.
Throughout the two hours, all three candidates stressed community involvement as being key to addressing many of the issues, starting with their role as the district’s chief executive.
Outley talked about her decades-long connection to the district, both as an alumna and as its interim leader. She also stressed her commitment to work with employee unions.
“We are at a critical point in time,” she said, adding “there will be no down time” on her part if she is appointed.
Dawson said he sees the superintendent’s job as leading the central office staff so that schools get the support they need to support teachers. He also said he plans to “bring everyone to the table,” including unions, parents, community groups and others.
Robinson said he plans to get out into the community and form collaborations with business leaders, city government and families, adding, “How about we go to where they live?
“I want them to have a seat at the table,” he said. “I did this before. That’s how we engage people.”
Akron superintendent candidates talk about healing, unity and school safety
The three were asked how they would bring “healing and unity” to the schools in a way that “permeates throughout the city of Akron” followed by a question regarding their experience with school safety.
Outley again emphasized her ongoing work, mentioning a recent “healing session” that featured Akron police, Love Akron and the Minority Behavioral Health Group.
Regarding school safety, she said the district has a safety team. She discussed safety measures the district is putting in place, including new metal detectors being installed.
Robinson said he would create advisory groups from among people such as students, staff and administrators. A transition team would develop a report outlining district needs when he takes office.
One advisory team would focus specifically on school safety.
“My role is to listen to you and then come up with a plan to move the district forward,” he said.
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Dawson said he has worked in school districts with similar problems as Akron Public Schools. He said trust is built by being consistent over time and “by being very intentional in what you’re trying to do.”
Part of that is getting students engaged in their studies, he said, explaining the first step in enhancing safety “is getting students excited about going to school.”
After that, the district should ensure it has solid safety infrastructure, including metal detectors, locked doors and other measures. Finally, the district must make a point to reach out to “external partners,” including families and community groups.
Akron superintendent finalists share about how they work with school unions
All three said they believe that having a good working relationship with district labor unions is key to district operations.
Robinson cited past experience working with unions.
“We treated each other with dignity and respect,” he said, adding “We didn’t always agree … I want to work diligently with your unions. I want to be partners.”
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Dawson mentioned a voluntary program that got around a contentious issue of adding extra instructional days to the school year to help students who needed extra help. It involved paying teachers extra for agreeing to fill those days.
“I believe in unions,” he said. “They are the backbone of what happens in our schools every day.”
Outley said communicating on a regular basis helps prevent problems when it comes time for contract negotiations, adding she recently agreed to meet union leaders “practically every month.”
What the superintendent candidates say about building Akron’s brand
The final question focused what the district should do to keep Akron students from leaving for open enrollment opportunities in other school districts, including academic, arts and athletic programs.
Robinson said the approach should be developed in consultation with families and staff at individual schools and make changes in accordance with what they feel is valuable.
Dawson said the key is to properly fund programs, make sure parents feel valued when they deal with the schools, have good “customer service” and advertise.
“At the end of the day, I want to be on the winning team,” he said.
He said the sports program should have the best coaches, the arts and academic programs should be well supported and the district needs to make sure the community knows good things about the district.
Outley said the district has already taken steps to get the good word out about Akron schools.
“I believe we are a well-kept secret,” she said, noting the district is adding staff to the communications department to help get the word out.
“We have to get in front. We have to talk about our brand,” she said.
Eric Marotta can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric.